Feasts & Seasons

All Saints & All Souls: Celebrating the Communion of Saints (Part 1)

October 24, 2008

This is Part 1 of a 3-part article.  Read Part 2 and Part 3.


Adoration of the LambThe intent of this article is to present a brief history of the Solemnity of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls, and to suggest ways of celebrating the twin feasts in our American Catholic parish communities, inspired by the customs and traditions of various ethnic groups. However, as I began to research the topic I was struck by how far the need for mediators like the saints and Mary is from the religious consciousness of most of us in the dominant American culture! Postmodern self-reliance relegates the connection, hence the devotion, to the saints and to those who have died to the margins of relevance and interest. In an article in Commonweal 119 (Oct. 23, 1992), Richard Mazziotta characterized this as a time “when the saints went marching out.” Those are fighting words that challenge us to reclaim this quintessential expression of Catholic spirituality. What we seek, then, is not only the traditions from around the world, but also to retrieve the rich tradition of the communion of saints that has been ours since the days of the Early Church.

All Saints: Opening Prayer of the Mass

“Today we rejoice in the holy men and women of every time and place…”

The Communion of Saints, the Body of Christ, can be described and illustrated in many ways, as seen in the artistic interpretations and stories above and below. In Christ, this body can be expressed in the unending relationship between the living faithful, the departed awaiting purification, and the blessed already in the bosom of God, what the Catechism calls “the three states of the Church.” (CCC #954) Yesterday they were what we are today, and tomorrow by the grace of God, we will be what they are now. We, the living, ask prayers of and for one another, pray for those who have died, and ask prayers of those holy ones already beholding God.


All Saints: Matthew 5:1-12a

“Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”

The cult of the dead dates back to prehistoric times and finds expression in various parts of the world, with commemoration of deceased loved ones and veneration of those most worthy offered on the day of their birth. In the pre-Christian Celtic religion, November 1st and 2nd were the celebration of their new year, when dead souls would return for a visit.

Christians cherished the memory of those martyred for the faith as icons of Jesus Christ. Small shrines were built where their remains were carefully buried, and they became places of prayer and pilgrimage. Unlike pagan anniversaries, the day of their death, their die natale or birth into the new Jerusalem, would be celebrated at their tomb, and eucharist celebrated at dawn on their graves. The martyrs became venerated as disciples and imitators of Christ.

A day in honor of all the saints known and unknown seems to have been celebrated since the 4th century on the Sunday after Pentecost, as it still is in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The origin of the feast of All Saints overlaps quite a bit that of the feast of All Souls; archeological and textual evidence attests to it from the second century in the East and the third century in the West. St. Ephraim first mentions May 13 in a hymn in 359. In Ireland something similar was celebrated on November 1st, while in Rome it seems to have occurred on all three days.

The cult of the saints flourished to the point of excess. Chapels and churches began to be built over the tombs of martyrs and competition for saintly corpses soon degenerated into a superstitious hunt for relics. In parts of the East it sometimes became a fight for the bodies of saintly hermits, still alive but expected to expire shortly!

In 609 or 610, Boniface IV brought 23 wagonloads of martyrs’ bones from the catacombs to the Pantheon, formerly a pagan temple given to him by Emperor Phocas, and on May 13 the pagan celebration of Lemuria, he consecrated it to St. Mary and all the Martyrs. By the 8th century, it was celebrated on November 1st in much of the Holy Roman Empire. Pope Gregory IV declared it an official solemnity in 835, and the date of May 13 died out.

All Souls: Introit, Antiphon 2:

“Give them eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual life shine upon them for ever.”

Pietro Damiani, in his Life of St. Odilo written in the 11th century, tells of a pilgrim sailing home to France after a trip to the Holy Land. A violent storm arose and cast his boat ashore on a desolate island. Seeking refuge, he was taken in by a hermit who recounted an incredible tale. There amid the rocks, he said, was a chasm so deep that it communicated with purgatory! At night he often heard the groans of tortured souls. But just as often, he would hear the complaints of demons, bemoaning the loss of several souls. It seems that the prayers of the faithful, most especially of the monks of Cluny, were so powerful that their victims were rescued. When the pilgrim finally made it home, he hastened to Cluny to inform Odilon, the abbot of Cluny, of the efficacy of his community’s intercessions, who then established November 2nd as a day of prayer for all the souls in purgatory.

From Cluny, this custom spread to other Cluniac monasteries, and was soon adopted throughout the Western Church. By the thirteenth century, Rome put it on the liturgical calendar. The feast of All Souls on November 2nd rightly falls on the day after All Saints, so that the entire Communion of Saints might be celebrated together. They are like two sides of the same coin, illustrating the Catholic belief in the Communion of Saints. Although only the first is a holy day of obligation, the two are often conflated, and the second celebrated around the world with hope rather than mourning.

Read Part 2 and Part 3 of this 3-part article.

Catherine Combier-Donovan is the Director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Richmond in Virginia U.S.A.


Mary, Throne of Wisdom: Twelfth Century Statue, Twenty-First Century Icon

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